Hummingbirds! Costa Rica has 50 species plus four extremely rare ones. All of them are year round residents except for one: our own ruby-throated hummingbird.
This makes it hard to pick two hummingbirds to highlight during my trip so I'll go with two that have exotic names.
The white-necked jacobin (Florisuga mellivora) is a medium sized hummingbird that forages in wet lowlands and foothills to 3,300 feet. As with other hummers his name is based on his appearance. "White-necked" comes from his white neck patch. "Jacobin" refers to his hood, similar to that of Dominican friars. (Click here to see.)
At six inches long the violet sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus) is the largest hummingbird in Central America. Common from 3,300 to 7,900 feet, some descend to lower elevations at this time of year.
In the male, the outermost primaries are thickened and somewhat flattened and are curved at an angle; this combination of features resembles a sabre.
There's one cool thing about this bird that I'll miss, even if I see one. During the breeding season, which corresponds to the rainy season May to October, the males gather in leks of four to twelve birds to sing and attract the females. Wow!
(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)
What species was the last bird you saw in 2016? Which one was your first of the new year?
Mine were the same species. Black birds in a black sky. American crows. Here's why.
Yesterday was the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count. I counted birds in my neighborhood (best bird: red-breasted nuthatch) and gave tips to Schenley Park's counter, Mike Fialkovich, on where to find the best raptors.
By noon, Mike had not seen the eastern screech-owl nor the merlins, and he'd only seen one peregrine at Pitt. Oooo! I carved out some time at dusk to run over to Schenley and have a look. Mike did too, but I didn't know that.
Dusk came early. At 4pm I raced around by car and on foot to find the owl (yes!) the merlins (yes!! two!) and both peregrines (alas, none). Interestingly, Mike and I saw the merlins at the same time but did not see each other.
Meanwhile, I couldn't help but see hundreds of crows coming in to Schenley and Pitt for the night, still flying after sunset. By the time I got home no other birds were out. Crows were my Last Bird of 2016.
This morning before dawn they flew over my house on their way from the roost. American crows were my First Bird of 2017.
Happy New Year!
p.s. When I stepped outdoors to hear the crows, I heard an unexpected Second Bird of 2017: an American robin singing his spring song, Cheerily Cheerio.
On a visit to Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum I saw this bird with an unusual crown that opens sideways!
Bird crests typically open front to back so that they're aerodynamic. Cardinals, blue jays and tufted titmice can fly with their crests up. This bird would have a problem.
The label on the pedestal says Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus), native from southern Mexico to southeastern Brazil. Why does she have a sideways crest? And what is it used for?
Back home on the Internet, I found out that royal flycatchers rarely raise their crowns. They use them in perched displays with their mates and in agonistic encounters with other birds but normally keep them flattened. The birds usually look like this. Pretty boring except for the tail.
Cameron encountered this flycatcher while banding birds in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil. As he held the bird, it opened its crest and beak and silently rotated its head back and forth 180 degrees in a mesmerizing display. See Cameron's video below.
I would never have learned this if I hadn't been curious about the royal flycatcher at Carnegie Museum.
The bird that wears a royal crown.
Male royal flycatcher with red crest raised, still photo and video by Cameron Rutt linked from Nemesis Bird and Flickr.
Female taxidermy mount at Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum, photo by Kate St.John.
Boring royal flycatcher not showing its crest, from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)
We won't have snow in Pittsburgh this Christmas and we certainly won't have evening grosbeaks but you can watch both -- live -- at Ontario FeederWatch.
The feeders are located in Manitouwadge, Ontario, a remote town that’s far away in the woods -- an 11.5 hour drive from Toronto and 8 hours from Duluth, Minnesota.
Manitouwadge is so far north that it has birds we never see here including evening and pine grosbeaks, gray jays and hoary redpolls. There are also a lot of birds you'll recognize: black-capped chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, crows and starlings.
North America's western birds are often similar to their eastern cousins.
Based on color you might mistake this black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) for a very dark junco but his body shape and habits match the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe).
Notice his flycatcher beak (not a seed-eating beak) and slightly angular head. Like the eastern phoebe he perches prominently and upright. If we could see him in motion, he'd be fly catching. Right now he has a message for hikers. 😉
You'll have to go west if you want to see this bird. Native to southwestern Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and southwest Texas, the black phoebe barely migrates. You can find him year round in Central and South America, too.
Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are in town eating fruit on our trees, vines and shrubs. Their nomadic flocks go where the fruit is and right now it's in Pittsburgh.
These sleek, fast moving, unpredictable birds are so social you almost never see one alone. The flocks can number in the hundreds, bouncing from tree to tree or perched high on bare branches.
Without binoculars they look like the last remaining leaves.
If you get a good look at a waxwing you'll see a sleek bird, smaller than a robin, with a crest, black face mask, yellow tail tips, an olive brown back that fades to gray, a taupe breast and lemon yellow belly. If you're lucky you'll also see the waxy red wing tips that give the bird its "waxwing" name.
Its "cedar" name comes from the birds' fondness for cedar berries.
Cedar waxwings look easy to identify but they can fool you. They often flatten their crests and move so fast you can't get a good look at them. In flight they resemble starlings, and there are some odd-looking birds among them.
The mottled ones are immature waxwings whose body shape, black masks, and yellow tail tips are the hint to their identity.
While feeding, the flock bounces and swirls above you. Then just before they all take off they raise their voices in high-pitched Zeeee's and are gone. If you can't hear the sound below, click here for the sonogram to see what you missed. (Note: There's a cardinal in the background of the recording. You might hear the cardinal but not the waxwings. Cedar waxwings are one of the first bird sounds we lose as we age.)
"Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)" from xeno-canto by Antonio Xeira. Genre: Bombycillidae.
Though some waxwings stay all winter in southern Pennsylvania most of the nomads are on their way to the southern U.S. They'll leave when they run out of fruit or a cold front arrives.
p.s. Cedar waxwings are one of the few species whose population has increased in the past 20 years, perhaps because there's more fruit as invasive honeysuckle spreads and we plant ornamentals in new suburbs.
(cedar waxwing photos by Cris Hamilton, photo of eastern redcedar berries by Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service via Bugwood.org)
Northern wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe) are insectivorous songbirds that breed in northern Eurasia, northeastern Canada, and Alaska. But no matter where they breed they go home to Africa for the winter.
Research using geolocators has found that they make longer journeys than they need to because they're so committed to their African home. Those that breed in Alaska travel 9,000 miles.
All About Birds illustrated this amazing migration in the map linked below. Wheatears from the Canadian Arctic cross the North Atlantic to the U.K, then down the coast via the Azores to western Africa. Those that breed in Alaska cross the Bering Strait and head east across Siberia, south to Kazakhstan and finally to eastern Africa.
Read more about their fascinating travels and how they fuel up to make the journey in the All About Birds blog:
Now that yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) are migrating through western Pennsylvania I'm reminded of three sapsucker species we'll never see unless we travel west.
The red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) resembles a yellow-bellied except that his nape (the back of his head) is red. He lives among trees in the Mountain Time zone all the way to the Sierras and Cascades. Amazingly, his range only overlaps the much larger range of the yellow-bellied sapsucker at a few sites in Canada -- so you can identify him by location in the U.S.
The red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), native to far western North America, looks as if he's been dipped in tomato juice. His range sometimes overlaps the western edges of yellow-bellied and red-naped sapsuckers with whom he sometimes interbreeds. The hybrids look like sapsuckers partially dipped in tomato juice. 😉
And finally, male Williamson's sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) can't be mistaken for any other bird. Sporting a black head and chest and a bright yellow belly, these sapsuckers live in middle to high elevation western mountains. I've never seen one.
Watch for yellow-bellied sapsuckers passing through western Pennsylvania on their way south. In eastern Pennsylvania, they stay all winter.